The impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on my small state school in Mount Lebanon has been profound. In the past three years, the total number of pupils at Mtein School has increased by almost 80 per cent, with approximately 85 per cent of them being refugees.
Almost overnight, we have had to manage large numbers of students from very different backgrounds. This has involved recruiting new teachers, creating new classes and introducing a new timetable to accommodate them. Instead of a traditional 8.30am-3pm school day, we now have the double-shift system: half the students attend school 8am-1.50pm and the other half attend 1.55pm-6.30pm.
Although we have taken measures to ensure that the pupils have the space and time to learn, and a teacher to teach them, we still face massive challenges. For example, we teach in either French or English. However, the Syrian children speak a range of Arabic dialects – for some, it’s almost impossible for them to follow our curriculum.
But the pupils work so hard to overcome the language barrier. One 15-year-old, IIaf, has really impressed me. She has taught herself French from scratch by watching online tutorials, and spends hours in the school’s technology lab practising and listening to the language.
Children didn't have any food
Nutrition is another major issue: the teachers noticed that many of the Syrian children did not eat at lunchtime. A quick scan of the playground showed that they simply didn’t have any food. The lucky ones with lunch boxes had only a piece of bread.
Thankfully, we have been included in The People's Postcode Lottery's snack programme, and the extra food has been a huge help. Our dropout rates have lowered, and the children’s concentration has radically improved. Once tired and listless, the students now have energy to focus all day.
The Syrian refugee children have experienced unimaginable horrors: their friends and relatives have been killed, many have lost everything. Some families struggle to survive even here. All of them needed psychosocial support: some were so affected by the war that they couldn’t trust anyone anymore. Integrating them into the wider school community was tough, and we had to encourage them to collaborate and to accept one another.
Embedding this community spirit can be hard to do when attendance is low. It’s not that the pupils don’t want to attend, it’s that some parents consider education unimportant – especially for girls, who are married off at a young age. They simply drop out and don’t return. Child marriage is a real threat to girls’ education and we are powerless to prevent it.
As for the boys, parents want them only to read and write before they send them off to work. Many families are living below the poverty line and a child in work helps supplement the family income.
But life isn’t all negative at our school. Many of our Syrian students are extremely motivated, understand how important education is for their future and achieve high grades despite the challenges they face.
My students see themselves as an important part of Syria’s peace and reconciliation process. They want to heal the wounded communities they come from and they are determined to rebuild their country.
I have no doubt that they will be the next generation of leaders. I like to think that our school has given them the skills and confidence to achieve.
Carine Sobhieh is a maths teacher at Mtein School, Mount Lebanon